The Battle of Altimarlach – Scotland’s last Clan Battle

The Arms of the Earl of Caithness

The Arms of the Earl of Caithness

The 13th of July, 1680 saw the last significant clan battle to be fought in Scotland, with the Sinclairs, under the command of George Sinclair of Keiss, taking on the Campbells led by Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy, fighting over the right to the Girnigoe Estates in Caithness.

In 1676, George Sinclair, the 6th Earl of Caithness died without an outright heir, and both Glenorchy and Keiss believed that they were entitled to inherit the estate.

During the latter half of the 17th century, economically, things were bad for many of the Highland clans, with some struggling to survive financially. The Earl of Caithness was one of those in desperate need for money with the Sinclair estate virtually bankrupt. It is alleged that he borrowed money from the Campbells for the purpose of shoring up the clan’s estates. On the death of the Earl, Sir John Campbell, being the main creditor to Sinclair, obtained the Girnigoe Estates as well as the Earldom in 1677 as repayment for his loan.

By 1678 he had married the late Earl’s widow, the Countess of Caithness. However, it is said that the only reason why Campbell married the countess was a financial one because it saved him having to pay her an annual 12,000 marks.

George Sinclair of Keiss was unhappy with Campbell’s accession to the Earldom, and disputed the claim. Keiss put forth his claim to the Earldom by stating that he was a direct relative of George Sinclair, and he went on to seize the Caithness estates, as well as occupying areas in and around the town of Wick.

The dispute continued and it saw Campbell gaining royal permission to invade Caithness and uphold his claim as the rightful Earl.  Along with his own men, Campbell was provided with several companies of the king’s troops, and they marched north to Wick from Perth. They arrived on the 18th of May and camped at Braemore, near Morven. This was part of the Berriedale estate which Campbell laid claim to as Earl of Caithness.

The army, believed to be 800 strong, marched on on the 12th of July and reached the Hill of Yarrows, which was known for a long time as Torran nan Gael – the Highlanders Hill. From there Campbell and his men had a great view of the surrounding area. Whilst on the hill a thick mist descended, and Campbell decided to take this opportunity to advance on Wick.  However, the mist lifted as he was heading down, and the alarm was promptly raised by the Sinclair forces in the town.

When Campbell and his men reached the bottom of the hill they headed for Stirkoke and Altimarlach where he split his army in two; deploying one lot on the haugh, and the rest were hidden in a gully.  Sinclair moved his men, estimated to be around the same size as Campbells, out of the town and headed along Wick River to meet the enemy army. As they reached the haugh, just at the point where a burn met the river, the Campbells launched a surprise attack, followed shortly by an ambush by the men in the gully.  The Sinclairs were in a tight position, pressed against the river bank. At this point the Wick River is rather deep, and as the Campbells pushed forward many of the Sinclairs fell into the water and drowned. For those who fell in to the flowing river, but managed to make it across to the opposite bank, on the Moss of Bronsie, awaiting for them there were reserves from Campbells army who summarily continued the fighting, killing many who made it across.

The monument to the battle of Altimarlach

The monument to the battle of Altimarlach

The battle ended in a decisive victory for Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy, and it is generally viewed as a humiliating defeat for the Sinclairs.  Legend claims that so many Sinclairs were killed or drowned in the river that the Campbells were able to cross without getting their feet wet. It is estimated that Sinclair lost around 300 men in the battle, whilst Campbell saw few from his side killed, and those that did die were buried where a commemorative cross now stands.

Peace was made however the following day when a truce was signed in the old Wick Town Hall, just east of present day Market Square.

Afterwards, Campbell split up part of his army around Caithness, where he levied the rents and taxes and ruled over the people in an oppressive manner.

It is said that on Campbell’s march to Caithness, to claim the estates, his piper, Finlay Ban MacIvor, composed two famous pipe tunes: Breadalbane Gathering and The Campbells are Coming. The former was said to have been played spontaneous in the middle of the battle, not long before the Sinclairs began to give way. Until relatively recently it was considered a gross insult to play either piece in Wick.

Campbell remained Earl of Caithness only until 1681. It is thought that George Sinclair had some influential and powerful friends, because he took his case to the Privy Council, and by act of parliament George was granted the Earldom, making him the 7th Earl, and putting the title back into the Sinclair family where it has remained ever since.

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I work at ScotClans and have done since 2009. Also a student.

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